Saturday night’s Ultimate Fighter Finale 10 championship between heavyweights Roy Nelson (14-4) and Brendan Schaub (5-0) will give the winner both an Ultimate Fighting Championship contract and a future in a company that is hardly guaranteed.
There have been 15 previous winners in the nine seasons (some seasons have had two tournaments, some one), dating back to the first final, the legendary Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar match on April 9, 2005, in Las Vegas.
The careers of previous winners have run the gamut. Some have become some of the UFC’s biggest stars; others are barely remembered trivia fodder.
More From Dave Meltzer
Three of them, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans and Matt Serra, have gone on to become not just champions, but also to return as coaches on the show, while being key parts in some of the biggest matches in company history.
Diego Sanchez bids to become the fourth champion out of the 15 when he challenges B.J. Penn for the lightweight title on Dec. 12.
Meanwhile, Michael Bisping has been instrumental in growing UFC’s popularity in the United Kingdom.
Only one winner, season four’s Travis Lutter, has been cut by the organization, although Kendall Grove has had his back against the wall more than once, and Mac Danzig likely does today.
Heading into Saturday night’s card at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, here’s a look at past winners, ranking them based on their accomplishments and impact on the UFC. We’re not including three champions from the past two seasons who have only fought once since: season eight’s Efrain Escudero and Ross Pearson and James Wilks from season nine.
1. Rashad Evans, season two heavyweight winner, 7-1-1 since winning TUF: After beating 6-foot-8, 265 pound Brad Imes via split decision on November 5, 2005, the first thing Evans did was drop to light heavyweight. He’s main evented five pay-per-view shows, knocked out Chuck Liddell in one of the most memorable finishes in UFC history and captured the 205-lb. championship from Forrest Griffin on Dec. 27, 2008, on one of the three biggest shows in the company’s history.
Evans’ only loss was May 23 in Las Vegas, dropping the title to current champ Lyoto Machida. Now 30, Evans came back to Ultimate Fighter this season as a coach to set up a match with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson that would have been among the most anticipated ever. However, Jackson pulled out of the match when he got the role as B.A. Baracus in the “The A-Team” movie.
Evans headlines his sixth major show on Jan. 2 in Las Vegas against Thiago Silva. If UFC and Jackson settle their differences, an Evans vs. Jackson match would be inevitable for probably the second quarter of 2010 and looked to as one of the biggest pay-per-view events of next year. If Evans beats Silva, the Evans-Jackson winner would likely also get a title shot.
2. Forrest Griffin, season one light heavyweight winner, 7-4 since: If there was a pick as the most valuable winner to the organization, as opposed to simply performance in the Octagon, Griffin takes it hands down. From midway through his April 9, 2005, decision over Bonnar, when it became evident this was going to be one of the sport’s all-time legendary fights, Griffin has been one of the company’s most popular fighters.
That match is credited with sealing the deal on the future of the company, because it led to UFC signing a long-term contract with Spike TV. Griffin has since main evented five pay-per-views, including two of the top six grossing events in MMA history.
Griffin’s popularity was more as a mid-level talent who overachieved, would never quit under adversity, and would more often-than-not produce great fights, like match-of-the-year contenders with Bonnar, Tito Ortiz, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Jackson. Most never figured him to be a champion, and were shocked at consecutive wins over Rua and then-champion Jackson, from whom he won the title from via decision on July 5, 2008. Griffin, 30, rebounded from the worst loss of his career to Anderson Silva in August by beating Ortiz in a rematch of a 2006 match, via split decision on Nov. 21.
3. Diego Sanchez, season one middleweight winner, 9-2 since: Sanchez would vault to No. 1 on the list if he were to take the championship from Penn. Since winning as a middleweight, Sanchez first dropped to welterweight. After being outsized and outmuscled in losing a split decision to Jon Fitch on Sept. 22, 2007, he began considering dropping down another weight class. The only two losses for the 27-year-old Sanchez in his career were to Fitch, generally ranked No. 2 in the world at welterweight, and Josh Koscheck, another top ranked welterweight, in a match Sanchez went into with limited energy due to a staph infection.
4. Michael Bisping, season three light heavyweight winner, 7-2 since: Up to this point, no fighter became as big a star while the show was going on as the U.K.’s most famous MMA fighter. Bisping, now 30, dominated the competition on what had been TUF’s highest-rated season until the current one. He came out of the chute with rock star-like popularity. After Bisping was awarded a win over Matt Hamill on Sept. 8, 2007, in a fight most thought he lost, the U.S. crowd largely turned against Bisping. Bisping lost to Evans via decision in the main event of UFC 78, then dropped down to middleweight.
Coaching Team U.K. in season nine against the laid-back Dan Henderson ended up making him one of the company’s top villains in the U.S., while at the same time making him even more popular in the U.K. Bisping rebounded from the first knockout of his career at the hands of Henderson in a high-profile UFC 100 match and finished Denis Kang on Nov. 14 in Manchester, U.K. Next up is likely Wanderlei Silva on Feb. 21 in Sydney, Australia.
5. Matt Serra, season four welterweight winner. 1-2 since: Serra won “The Comeback” season, in which veteran fighters returned to the UFC, with a title shot going to the winner. In the biggest upset in UFC history, Serra blasted welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre out of the box on April 7, 2007 in Houston to become the first person to go from TUF to champion. Serra followed that up by doing one of the greatest hype jobs in company history in building the rematch against St. Pierre, held in Montreal, before a record-setting crowd. Serra, now 35, lost the title, and then lost a close decision in a grudge match with former champion Matt Hughes on May 23. Next on his agenda is a match with Frank Trigg on Feb. 6 in Las Vegas.
6. Ryan Bader, season eight light heavyweight winner, 2-0 since: The former two-time All-America wrestler at Arizona State, Bader has been the most promising of recent season winners, with a perfect 10-0 overall record. Now 26, next on his agenda is a Feb. 21 date in Sydney, Australia, against Keith Jardine, in the biggest test of his career.
7. Joe Stevenson, season two welterweight winner, 7-4 since winning the show: Like several winners, Stevenson, 27, after winning the show, dropped a weight class, going down to lightweight. Stevenson won his first four 155-pound fights before losing a bloodbath in a Jan. 19, 2008, title challenge to Penn in Newcastle, England. He’s become a fighter who generally loses to the top contenders, like Sanchez and Kenny Florian, but beats the guys in the middle of the pack. His next fight is Feb. 21 in Sydney against Australian native George Sotiropoulos.
8. Nate Diaz, season five lightweight champion, 5-2 since: Diaz, 24, rebounded from consecutive decision losses to Clay Guida and Stevenson, with a Sept. 16 win over Melvin Guillard. In his seven matches, he’s gotten three Fight of the Night bonuses (a win over Josh Neer and his two losses) as well as two best submission bonuses, putting him in the category of a very entertaining and popular mid-card fighter. The younger brother of Strikeforce star Nick Diaz next faces Gray Maynard in the main event of the Jan. 11 Fight Night show in Fairfax, Va.
9. Kendall Grove, season three middleweight champion, 5-3: The 6-foot-6, 185-pounder from Maui, has come through twice when it appeared a loss would bounce him from the company. After losing two straight first-round knockouts to Patrick Cote and Jorge Rivera, he was flat out told a loss to the late Evan Tanner on June 21, 2008, would be his last in the organization. But he won a decision over the former middleweight champion. Now 27, he was relegated to the undercard on Nov. 21, when he triangle-choked three-time NCAA champion wrestler Jake Rosholt right out of the organization in another fight where his back may have been against the wall.
10. Travis Lutter, season four middleweight champion, 1-2 since. Lutter is the only former winner no longer in UFC. His win in “The Comeback” season guaranteed him a title shot at Anderson Silva on February 3, 2007, in Las Vegas. But that ended as a double whammy, as Lutter failed to make weight for the fight, then lost via triangle choke in 2:11 of the second round after he actually won the first round. Lutter, 36, asked for time off, and it wasn’t until 14 months later when he returned, losing to Rich Franklin in a fight where once again, he was completely gassed out by the start of the second round. He was then cut and has only fought once since, winning a decision over Jason MacDonald on Oct. 2 in Edmonton for Maximum Fighting Championships.
11. Amir Sadollah, season seven middleweight champion, 1-1 since: The only person to win the show without ever previously fighting MMA professionally, the 29-year-old former kickboxer surprisingly submitted everyone he fought on TUF. Plagued by injuries, it wasn’t until 14 months after winning that he returned to UFC, with a 29-second loss to Johny Hendricks. Sadollah, who hosts UFC interview segments on Spike TV came back and beat lightly regarded Phil Baroni via decision in an exciting fight on Nov. 21. He faces Brad Blackburn on Jan. 11, in Fairfax, Va.
12. Mac Danzig, season six welterweight champion, 1-3 since: Danzig, 29, was the only experienced fighter in a weak cast in 2007. He dropped to lightweight after winning. He has consecutive losses to Clay Guida, Josh Neer and Jim Miller, and does not have his next fight lined up yet.